Building Science & The Internet Of Things

From The Austin Building Science Happy Hour Talk— April 23

“Most of you who know us know that we at Positive Energy like to think about the future and consider not only what’s possible, but where we’re actually headed — what’s going on around us that indicates an industry transformation. I’m going to keep today’s post relatively short and keep the topic at a high level. If I can simply leave you with a framework in which to think about what’s possible in the near future, then I’ll leave happy.

We primarily focus on the nitty gritty of how to think about and deliver better building systems at this happy hour forum and it’s fantastic. Recently we’ve discussed topics that challenge our current paradigm and point us toward what’s next, like the discussion on grid level battery storage, and I’m sure we’ll continue to explore more and more aspects of building science as we build this community here together. Today I want to focus our attention on an idea that has permeated the tech world recently and has even come into the vocabulary of the common consumer — The Internet of Things. It’s an idea that I firmly believe will fundamentally change the way we build and live in homes in the near future.

Let’s qualify this term — the Internet of Things.

The Internet of Things (IoT) is the network of physical objects or “things” embedded with electronics, software, sensors and connectivity to enable it to achieve greater value and service by exchanging data with the manufacturer, operator and/or other connected devices. Each thing is uniquely identifiable through its embedded computing system but is able to interoperate within the existing Internet infrastructure.

Search traffic on the web related to The Internet Of Things increased by 2.5x last year and is growing this year. That’s a lot of people searching for a concept that hasn’t long existed. It’s a part of our world now. Almost all of the major tech companies like Google, Apple, Facebook, and Samsung are all heavily invested in both hardware and software development for these types of devices/networks and IBM just recently announced that they’ll be investing $3billion into their R&D of the IoT over the next few years.

Thinking about the Apple Watch out today, I was incredibly skeptical and dismissive of the idea of a smart-watch, but the more research I did for this talk and the more I followed the design and development narrative of how devices like this are so subtle in the way they guide users through their day, I very quickly recognized the implications of their widespread use. As more devices proliferate and start to work together, connected objects will become platforms for everyone’s life. They’ll help us with day to day tasks, entertainment, and especially home performance.

So just to clarify what this means in a more technical sense — most of these devices like the Apple Watch, fit bit, etc. operate via the communication protocol IEEE 802.15, which is different from IEEE 802.11 — or as we traditionally know it — “WiFi”. They are optimally programmed to communicate with each other in short range scenarios. Smart devices only need to communicate with the next device, not necessarily directly with a centralized hub. It’s no surprise that we’ve already begun seeing houses become the ideal environment for these devices.

So the obvious question is “what does this mean to us in regards to building science?”

We’re in the business of designing and putting together high performance buildings that are factored for the humans that will occupy them. We do this with thoughtful design, applied science, and a lot of hard work. As we all know, with all good science there eventually comes new data that out-dates past processes and suggests better ones. Consequently new products and technologies emerge all the time. Enter smart homes…

When we think about home performance in terms of products and technology, it’s not difficult to see the appeal of devices that can turn a home into a responsive environment that interacts with its inhabitants. Connected objects will create more data and we in this industry can use it to create better experiences for our clients. We will be able to make more precise recommendations for a huge range of home choices based on specific preferences. What better support can you have for a recommendation than your own deep knowledge of available products and corresponding occupant generated data?

As more accessible programmatic technology becomes available, we’ll be able to help deliver real time changes to air flow, radiant heating/cooling, window shades, light comfort, ad infinitum — all based on the clients direct and indirect feedback. And I’m not just talking about someone getting up and changing the settings on a smart thermostat. Imagine the bio-feedback sensors of a smart watch triggering a change in the home’s performance seamlessly so that the client exists in an optimally comfortable environment without blinking an eye.

In our internet saturated world, consumers expect to get what they want in the moment they want it. We’ve reached a point in our technological lives that the Google app gets 30X as many action queries by voice as by typing. You say “Take me home” and Google knows to trigger your maps app to assess the traffic situation and get you there via the quickest route possible. We’re not far from being able to say “I’m kind of cold” and having the home respond accordingly.

As such, the mobile device is already the remote control for our lives. As technological innovation continues on its telescoping path, we will very soon be able to use these devices as the context to make both our buildings and our energy grid perform even better. Imagine a grid structure that can understand location changes on a cell phone, for example when it notices that your phone leaves your home wifi network, and can precisely and efficiently deliver electricity elsewhere. Imagine a home that’s programmed to know when it’s time to buffer the solar storage from your roof panels on a cloudy day by bringing in the required load from the grid and visa versa.

A good way to think about what The IoT actually is would be to think of it as a Programmable World. “After all, what’s remarkable about this future isn’t just sensors, nor is it that all our sensors and objects and devices are linked together. It’s the fact that once we get enough of these objects onto our networks, they’re no longer one-off novelties or data sources but instead become a coherent system, a vast ensemble that can be choreographed, a body that can dance. Really, it’s the opposite of an “Internet,” a term that even today — in the era of the cloud and the app and the walled garden — connotes a peer-to-peer system in which each node is equally empowered. By contrast, these connected objects will act more like a swarm of drones, a distributed legion of bots, far-flung and sometimes even hidden from view but nevertheless coordinated as if they were a single giant machine.”

Without continuing down the path of “imagine this and imagine that,” start noticing the incredible technologies around you. Take note of their potential. They keep getting better and short of a supervolcano erupting, they’re not going anywhere. You’re already delivering data that has shaped your experience as a person — whether in your email, Facebook, or even accidentally showing up on a Google Earth photo with your face blurred out. Often times you’re contributing to data-sets when you use an elevator in any given building as it documents its usage patterns to deliver better performance. As we integrate our homes with The Internet of Things, it will become a powerful, data-intensive tool that will take building science directly into the homes of our clients and empower us to make better decisions in our design and construction as data-trends emerge.

There are obviously security concerns for many aspects of The Internet of Things. There are political implications and ethical questions that will be asked, far surpassing building science. Programming communitites are already looking at ways to develop open source platforms to privatize your home’s IoT network and remove the corporate overlord’s control of the data/security, etc. Regardless, it is a techno-societal trend that will continue to change the way that we think about our lives and the role of automation in our homes. There are already a lot of homeowners, maybe even some of you, who see the advantage of energy and economic savings by installing a NEST thermostat. Imagine what else is possible.

Resources & Citations:

Internet of Things definition: J. Höller, V. Tsiatsis, C. Mulligan, S. Karnouskos, S. Avesand, D. Boyle: From Machine-to-Machine to the Internet of Things: Introduction to a New Age of Intelligence. Elsevier, 2014, ISBN 978–0–12–407684–6.

Nerdy links:

IPv6 over Low power Wireless Personal Area Networks